Ideology and Reality in the Movie, The Matrix
The matrix, as presented in the eponymous film, operates as an Althusserian Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). The Matrix1 presents a world in which "the state [as] a 'machine' of repression" is made literal where robots rule the land (Althusser 68). It is true that they rule by force (sentinels and agents) and these constitute the Repressive State Apparatus, but their primary force of subjugation is the matrix, their ISA. The film traces the path of one man, Neo, in his painful progress from the ideology of the matrix to the "real world," or the ideology of the "real."2
The matrix, unlike the ideology of the "real," is explicitly defined along Althusserian lines as an ISA. Althusser identifies ISAs as "a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer" (Althusser 73). Just as the "machine" of the state is taken literally, ideology as "reality" is taken literally. Any discussion of the ISA must include both a brief discussion of the State and Althusser's use of the term "ideology." For him, the State "has no meaning except as a function of State power" and as such, "the State is the repressive State apparatus" (71-72). The State Apparatus (SA) is in turn comprised of the Repressive State Apparatus and the Ideological State Apparatus. The RSA will be discussed in further detail later, but to understand how the matrix serves as an ISA, a brief discussion of ideology is called for.
Althusser defines the ISA as those private institutions that operate by ideology instead of physical repression. Ideology, as a term, has two aspects for Althusser. The first is that "ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (Althusser 87). An ideology, therefore, operates to filter the reality of experience to allow the subject to interpret the world around them. These are the "world outlooks" of "religious ideology, ethical ideology, legal ideology, political ideology, etc." (87). It is important to realize that ideology here is a completely imaginary construct, though from within any particular ideology, it is indistinguishable from the borders of "the real conditions of...existence" (87).
Althusser identifies a second thesis regarding ideology: "Ideology has a material existence" (Althusser 89). In spite of its necessarily imaginary nature, ideology is only manifested through physical action. This materiality introduces the notion of the subject. "The existence of the ideas of [the subject's] belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject" (92). Which is to say that, a subject's intellectual ideas are only manifested through the physical actions that are inherently rooted in the ideology. It is impossible to...